The Hot Zone

The Hot Zone Summary and Analysis of "In the Shadow of Mount Elgon" (pp. 48-94)


Nearly four years after the death of Charles Monet, the narrative shifts to a Victorian house in Maryland, where Major Nancy Jaax is making dinner for her two children. While her husband is out of town, Nancy is responsible for taking care of the children, the housework, the cooking, and the family pets, including a python named Sampson. While opening a can of green beans with a butcher knife, Nancy severely cuts her hand.

The next morning, Nancy sends the children to school and drives to work at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), where she specializes in Biosafety Level 4 hot agents. Many of her colleagues are skeptical about her ability to succeed at Level 4. Not only is she a “married female,” but her slender frame and tendency to move her hands quickly are both considered to be problematic in working with hot agents. In order to combat this perception, Nancy enrolls in martial arts training in order to make her arm movements seem more purposeful. She also persuades her immediate supervisor, Lieutenant Colonel Tony Johnson, to give her a chance to prove herself.

At the Institute, Nancy is currently working as the pathologist for Gene Johnson’s Ebola experiment. For the experiment, Johnson infects laboratory monkeys with strains of Ebola and then treats them with various drugs to see if any are effective against the virus. After the monkeys die, Nancy is responsible for determining the cause of death. As two of the monkeys have bled out during the night and will need to be dissected, Nancy will spend the day in a biohazard space suit.

After spending the morning completing paperwork, Nancy prepares to enter the Ebola suite with Tony Johnson. She puts on a sterile scrub suit, surgical cap, and clean white socks, but leaves the band-aid on the cut on her hand. In the staging area, she puts on rubber gloves and tapes the seals of her scrub suit. Finally, she puts on a blue Chemturion biological space suit and a plastic helmet before crossing through the airlock from the gray zone to the hot zone in Level 4.

Inside the laboratory, Nancy and Johnson examine the monkeys that have been injected with Ebola Zaire, a highly lethal strain taken from a nurse known as Mayinga N. The animals are clearly suffering, and Nancy is distressed that she is unable to ease their pain for the sake of the experiment. She reminds herself that the goal of the research is to save human lives, but she still feels somewhat uneasy.

Nancy and Johnson transport the first dead monkey to the necropsy room and set up their instruments for dissection. As they open up the monkey, Nancy silently talks herself through the process, reminding herself to move slowly and to keep rinsing the monkey blood off her gloves. This is only her second time in a hot area. Suddenly, Johnson points to Nancy’s space suit, and she sees that she has a rip across the right hand of her glove. She removes the outer glove and realizes that there is a breach in the wrist of her space suit.

With Johnson’s permission, Nancy immediately leaves the hot zone and steps into the seven-minute decontamination shower. After the shower, she strips off her space suit, only to find Ebola blood smeared against her innermost glove, right next to the cut on her hand. With only the band-aid and a thin layer of latex standing between her and exposure to a lethal hot agent, Nancy’s immediate fear is that she’ll be sent to the "Slammer" (quarantine ward of the hospital) to wait out the exposure or die. She fills the glove with water to test for a leak. Miraculously, the glove holds water: Nancy has not been exposed to the virus.

Despite numerous drug treatments, all of the monkeys infected with the Ebola virus eventually die. The only exceptions are the two control monkeys, who are never exposed to the hot agent. Two weeks after the incident with the glove, Nancy and Johnson are shocked to discover that the two control monkeys have suddenly developed symptoms of Ebola. Nancy realizes that Ebola has the ability to travel through the air.


With the narrative’s shift to Nancy Jaax in 1983, Preston continues to provide context for the outbreak at the Reston facility. Unlike with Monet and Musoke, who receive only contextual descriptions, Preston provides a more thorough backstory for Nancy, including details about her family life, early courtship with her husband, and career struggles. Preston also chooses to change narrative perspective, switching to Nancy’s inner monologue during the scene in the necropsy room. As a result, Nancy essentially becomes a fictional character in the middle of a non-fiction work. Not only does this allow the reader to empathize with her more deeply, it also serves to signal her importance as a main protagonist later in the book.

In his early description of Nancy, Preston refers to the longstanding issue of sexism against women in the sciences. Nancy faces discrimination at the Institute not because of the quality of her work, but because she is a “married female.” None of the male scientists at the Institute face skepticism because of their own marriages, yet Nancy is perceived to be out of place and unsuited for such dangerous work. This viewpoint relates to the Victorian expectation of the ideal wife and mother as the “Angel of the House”, whose sole purpose is to maintain the domestic realm.

Nancy’s work in science is clearly at odds with this expectation, especially since she is the mother of two small children and still chooses to work with hot agents. The other criticism leveled at Nancy – that her hands move too quickly – relates to yet another stereotype from the Victorian era: the idea that women are hysterical and susceptible to nervous excitability. The other scientists at the Institute are not actually questioning Nancy’s ability to use her hands. Instead, they are questioning Nancy’s strength of mind under pressure, particularly when she is holding sharp instruments in the presence of other (namely male) scientists.

Tony Johnson eventually agrees to use Nancy as the pathologist for the Ebola experiment, but he does so only after privately interviewing Nancy’s husband, an act that in itself can be seen as perpetuating gender stereotypes. To his credit, Johnson decides to use Nancy for the experiment even after Jerry Jaax voices concerns about her involvement. Still, before Johnson accompanies her into the hot zone, Preston notes that he “looked into her eyes for signs of panic” (73).

In the scene when Nancy discovers the rip in her glove, Preston again alludes to the role played by chance in determining who becomes infected with a virus. For all intents and purposes, Nancy should have been exposed: not only does she have a rip in her glove and a breached space suit, but she has an open cut on her hand. However, due to single layer of latex, Nancy escapes both the Slammer and potential death. While this narrow escape confirms Nancy’s role as a main protagonist for the remainder of the book, Preston makes it clear that her salvation is due to simple good luck.